Functional diversity of motoneuron dendrites: by accident or design?

P. K. Rose, S. Cushing, G. Grande, T. Bui


The distribution and geometry of the dendritic trees of spinal motoneurons obey several well-established rules. Some of these rules are based on systematic relationships between quantitative geometrical features (e.g. total dendritic length) and the three-dimensional trajectory followed by dendrites from their origin to their termination. Since dendritic geometry partially determines the transmission of current and voltage signals generated by synapses on the dendritic tree, our goal was to compare the efficacy of signal transmission by dendritic trajectories that followed different directions. To achieve this goal, we constructed detailed compartmental models of the dendritic trees of intracellularly stained neck motoneurons and calculated the electrotonic properties of each soma-to-terminal trajectory. These properties displayed a high degree of variability. To determine if this variability was due, in part, to the orientation (e.g. rostral, rostral-dorsal-lateral) of the trajectory, each trajectory was classified according to its orientation. The attenuation of current and voltage signals en route to the soma were strongly related to trajectory orientation. Trajectories with similar attenuation factors formed functional subunits that were arranged in distinct domains within the ventral horn. The difference in the efficacy of signal transmission between subunits was increased by activation of neighbouring synapses due to trajectory-related differences in non-linear summation. These results indicate that the input-output properties of motoneurons depend on the direction of the path taken by dendrites from their origin at the cell body to their terminals.

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